Given the chance, I think most bass fishermen would rather catch big smallmouths than big largemouths. No surprise, you say, because smallmouths typically fight harder and jump higher than their cousins. But I think there's more to it than that.
Smallmouths are the fish of memories, the home runs of bass fishing. Any angler who's come upon an aggressive school of them knows what I mean. Their aggressiveness is what we live for. It seems that no retrieve is too fast, and nothing can stop them from devouring their prey. I see it in the eyes of anglers at my seminars. They want so badly to experience that excitement again, and the feeling that the school of fish they just found is nearly limitless in size.
My recommendations for those in quest of a memory-maker? Pick lures that can cover water quickly and efficiently, ones that can be cast far, get to operating depth quickly, can be retrieved fast, and can tweak the aggressive tendency of smallmouth bass. It's no surprise that jerkbaits, lipless crankbaits, and big spinnerbaits fill this category.
It often comes as a shock, however, when I mention the most important and efficient of all reaction baits—the tube. Not the dainty little squid fished on light tackle that started the finesse craze decades ago, but rather a system pioneered on the Great Lakes and other Midwestern waters. Moreover, it seems to work everywhere smallmouths are found, provided the water is still warm. This system feeds on their aggressive nature—which is like no other and can produce a day of fishing that won't be forgotten. It's what I call the "Power Tube."
It's hard to find a story about smallmouth that doesn't at least mention the tube jig. These simple softbaits may be the best all-around bait for brown bass throughout much of the year. And they have a place in nearly every angler's bag. Most anglers tend to lean on the tube when things aren't going as planned, reserving it for times when bass won't hit a faster, flashier offering. In short, the tube is used as a finesse presentation.
A tube can, however, be used in place of typical power-fishing presentations to exploit the aggressive tendencies of this species. This method has been termed "snapping a tube" around the Great Lakes region, and it's produced many tournament wins, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of the pioneers of this system is Lake Erie legend Steve Clapper of Lima, Ohio, who has devised and refined many other techniques for Great Lakes smallmouth, as well.
Clapper employed this snapping technique to win the 2007 FLW Tour event on Lake Erie. A year later, North Carolina pro Alvin Shaw used a similar technique to win the Tour stop on Lake St. Clair, which was followed by another tube-snapping win by Chip Harrison of Indiana on Lake Champlain on the New York-Vermont border. And this technique has gained a place in my own arsenal wherever smallmouths swim—2 to 40 feet deep; river, lake, or reservoir.
Ya Gotta Believe
At my seminars, I ask participants to give me two days to fish the way I recommend before they give up and go back to their favorite finesse presentations for tough times. My recommendations: Never slow down. Never stop casting. Never let your thoughts drift to trying new colors or slightly different baits. For two days, keep three reaction baits on the deck and keep casting. This process is intended to make you believe in one simple theory: If you target smallmouth bass, over the course of two days they'll give away their location because of their aggressive nature. Whether it's a catch or a follow, smallmouths give themselves away. They can't help it.
While largemouth bass often sit and wait, smallmouth are schooling fish built to overtake prey in open water. In addition to their fighting nature, the tendency to school heats competition among fish, making them suckers for reaction-strike presentations. Moreover, their attraction to rapid, jerking motions enables anglers to target them with power-fishing techniques. This fits the bill for tube-snapping. One thing's for sure—they respond to the basic size and shape of a tube bait. Transform it into a rapid cast-and-retrieve bait, and it can be unstoppable.
Rigged on a heavy jighead and aggressively ripped off bottom, a tube darts ahead then spirals rapidly down. Both the smallmouth's curiosity and aggression kick in, and they rush to the spot where the tube landed. As the fish watches, the tube suddenly leaps away, powered by the angler's long rod. That's usually more than a big, summertime smallie can stand.
To add to the deceit, tubes mimic natural prey, including crawfish on a rocky bottom, perch in the weeds, or gobies on a Great Lakes shipwreck 40 feet down. It's important to note that all these prey species respond to smallmouth the same way: they quickly dart away in short bursts, seeking to distance themselves from the lurking predator.
Power Tube Techniques
The key to this technique is triggering a reaction strike. For that to occur, the lure must dart erratically and with great speed. Due to the fast fall of a heavy head, this technique is best in warm water, from the Postspawn Period through fall. Steve Clapper is partial to one particular head design. "Most people think I won that $200,000 FLW tournament on a drop-shot bait. And I did catch fish each day drop-shotting a goby bait. But I won it on a tube.
"The key was snapping the Big Dude jighead after I'd fished through the area for four days," he continued. The jig Clapper refers to is the 3/4-ounce Big Dude jighead by Bite Me Tackle. Its bulbous shape was designed to closely mimic a goby when stuffed into a tube. Magnum sizes were created to combat Erie's deep, often rough, conditions. It wasn't until a few anglers around Erie, including me and Clapper, starting actively fishing these big heads in calm conditions that we recognized its appeal to brown bass.
"I discovered the snapping technique years ago," Clapper says, "while fishing grubs with my son in a tournament. We'd snap that grub up real high, triggering fish that wouldn't hit a traditional dragging or swimming presentation. Later I transferred the retrieve to tubes.
"The key is to get the tube moving along fast and erratically, similar to a summertime jerkbait retrieve. This can only be accomplished with a heavy tube, 1/2 ounce and up." Clapper exploited his area during the FLW tournament by varying retrieves and snapping a tube around rockpiles in 30 feet of water as the wind howled. Since that time, I've learned how effective the same technique can be in other types of waters. I've found that Lake St Clair, where I now spend most of my fishing time, may be the greatest tube-snapping lake in the world.
Throughout summer and fall, few techniques produce such a great size-class of fish. Fishing in 10 to 18 feet of water, I can sometimes catch more fish drop-shotting, but the average weight of tube fish is always greater. The technique seems to trigger the biggest fish in the school. The same may be said of other smallmouth-rich lakes like Champlain, where smallmouths spread over flats with mixed vegetation and rock. Harrison's winning strategy involved snapping a tube clean out of grass edges, which works on vegetated waters large and small.
Effective snapping retrieves range from subtle short bursts that pop a bait out of grass to exaggerated, over-the-head jerks that lift a tube 10 feet or more off bottom. Over shallower flats, Clapper and I like to keep the rod rather horizontal and sweep a tube sideways, making a bottom-hugging bait dart erratically through rock and weeds. Experimenting with your retrieve cadence can be important, as the fish can show definite preferences.
Be warned that if there's one constant to tube snapping, it's the difficulty in hooking bass and keeping them on the line. Most strikes occur immediately after snapping the bait as it spirals back to the bottom, or at the height of the snap. There's substantial slack line at that point. If a fish is hooked well, another challenge presents itself when it approaches the boat swinging a hefty jighead. Jumps, surges, and thrashes of big bass can spell disaster.
As a result, the most important part of rigging for this technique is the rod. Reels, line, even hook type take a back seat to the importance of a long, fairly stiff but not overly fast spinning rod. Clapper's rod for this technique is a custom-made 71/2-foot G. Loomis GLX. It's rated medium-heavy-action, far stiffer than what most smallmouth fishermen are used to. I've been using a 71/2-foot Team Daiwa medium-heavy Iaconelli Series model M1761MHXS with a Fuego 2500A reel. The rod's length and power are a huge asset in fighting fish.
Also, the further away from the boat that the majority of the fighting, jumping, and carrying-on occurs, the better. A big bronzeback hooked on a heavy jig in shallow water near the boat can be a real test to land and will raise the blood pressure of the most tournament-tested veteran. We've found that the best thing is to let fish pull against a loose drag and burn some of their energy before bringing them boatside.
Line is important as well. For this technique, nothing touches fluorocarbon. Berkley's Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon offers low stretch and abrasion-resistance, as well as impact strength I've not found in other brands. Such durability goes far when using long, stout rods and powerful hooksets. For working structures in the 8- to 30-foot range, we usually spool 8-pound test, a compromise.
While heavier line might provide more surety for hard hooksets and battling bronzebacks from their zebra-mussel-encrusted lairs, thinner and less visible line increases the number of bites. But that 8-pound Trilene fluoro is remarkably tough.
As for the tubes themselves, both Clapper and I use ISG Intimidators and Dream Tubes. Watermelon and green pumpkin colors are most reliable. I especially like these dark colors mixed with copper flake, when fishing for perch-eating monsters that roam St. Clair's weedflats in summer. Copper's orange tint seems to match the accents of yellow perch.
Long spinning rods, fluorocarbon line, and tube jigs weighing close to an ounce add up to one often overlooked variable—long casts. In my opinion, one of the greatest assets a smallmouth bait can have is the ability to be cast extreme distances. When searching for fish over expansive flats, often in the windy conditions common on the Great Lakes, long casts are a must. Let 'er rip!
After the lure reaches bottom, give it three strong, sideways jerks, all the while taking up slack line with the reel, much like fishing a jerkbait. Let the bait rest a second or two, and repeat. You'll be amazed how quickly a long cast is completed and how much water you've covered. After a few casts without a bite, however, some novices think the technique isn't working. Maybe they'll set the big tube down and try the drop-shot again. Don't do it. Two days—give me two days.
*Joe Balog, Harrison Turnpike, Michigan, is a veteran tournament angler and fishing guide. He won the Bassmaster Northern Tour event on Lake Erie in 2006.